Health Watch -- Diagnosing MS

Health Watch is a Public Service of the  Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

A faster diagnosis of multiple sclerosis could mean patients get treatment sooner.

Multiple sclerosis is the most common disabling disease of young adults, striking about 350,000 people in the United States. While there isn’t a cure yet, there are treatments that can help delay some of the more devastating effects of the disease. Unfortunately, MS is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are so unpredictable, vary by individual and come and go. It may be years after the first attack before the disease is confirmed.

But now researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have found a new way to diagnose MS accurately soon after the first attack of MS-like symptoms. Until recently, doctors made a diagnosis of MS after observing symptoms during at least two separate flare-ups.

The UT Southwestern researchers found that MRI scans together with clinical observation could diagnose MS after only one flare-up. Dr. Elliot Frohman, head of UT Southwestern’s MS program, says that there are characteristic MRI lesions in the central nervous system that strongly predict MS. With this method, a doctor can confirm a diagnosis of MS as soon as the first clinical attack of symptoms. That means patients can begin therapies to prevent symptoms far sooner.

MS occurs when the tissue that protects nerve fibers is damaged. As a result, the nerves may not accurately carry signals to and from the brain. Symptoms may include vision problems, fatigue and loss of balance or coordination.